Old patterns and prints are back in fashion, but mastering the trend is more difficult than you think. Eleanor Flegg asks the experts how to reinvent rather than reiterate a tradition
Nostalgia was once considered an illness. In 1688, a Swiss physician called Johannes Hofer researched the behaviour of homesick Swiss mercenaries fighting abroad. His study established nostalgia as a disease.
This misapprehension lasted for 300 years (it was thought that only Swiss people suffered from nostalgia). Now, nostalgia is recognised as a complex emotion. It is a yearning for bygone times, a bittersweet cocktail of positive and negative feelings, but more sweet than sour. It can be experienced individually or collectively, and is often triggered by objects or motifs from the past. An old-fashioned trellis of rosebuds reminds us of kinder, safer times.
The British brand Cath Kidston is all about nostalgia. It was founded in 1993 by Kidston, who designed lifestyle and fashion products decorated with English heritage patterns. The designs were based on vintage textiles with a 1990s filter: floral prints, polka dots and roses galore. It was a distinctive look and entirely non-ironic.
Kidston juggled with dangerous concepts like whimsy, kitsch and chintz. People loved and loathed it in equal measure. Recently, the brand has undergone a radical reshuffle with fewer shops and a stronger online platform. Its new Creative Director Holly Marler has gone back to the archival fabrics that originally inspired the prints.
I meet Marler in London at the launch of a new collaboration between Cath Kidston and the British furniture brand DFS. Perched on a dainty sofa, upholstered in a fabric that’s actually called Ditzy, I ask her about nostalgia. “It’s my whole ethos.” she says. “Vintage textiles are my thing.”
She shows me her mood board where scraps of archival fabric are pinned between Cath Kidston classics and her own meticulous hand-painted designs. A blue-winged unicorn. A monkey with tiger stripes. A strawberry tree. “The pattern is called Painted Kingdom. I designed it during lockdown when I was thinking of the kind of world I’d like to live in. The unicorn was a bit of a joke, if I’m honest. I like humour in design. Look at the pig. It has wings!” This is Cath Kidston with irony. It works.
Although the designs are modern, they’re also within the tradition of “toile de jouy” patterns brought to England by the French Huguenot refugees in the 16th and 17th centuries. “It’s a type of pattern with little vignettes against a base colour,” says Marler, who formerly worked with Alexander McQueen and shares the late fashion designer’s passion for historical research.
“People think there’s no connection between those parts of my life, but there are threads running through. The emphasis on history and on placement.” By this, she means the way that the pattern is placed on an object. “That’s something that I always pay attention to.”
The key to nostalgia in design is to reinvent rather than reiterate tradition. The Cath Kidston x DFS collection includes new shapes: heart-shaped Locket Love Heart stool (€389), a Flounce bed frame (€1,625 for a king-size bed), and a Stargazer chaise longue (€1,169). All are available in Ireland from DFS.
The prints include some Cath Kidston classics, differently scaled for use on furniture, and also new ones (spoiler alert: this is a feminine look). Many Irish people will have only experienced this particular flavour of cottage garden Britishness from the telly, But nostalgia for an imaginary past is also legitimate.
And besides, Cath Kidston has been around long enough to be nostalgic for itself.
Back on this side of the water, Irish designer Rebecca Roe has released her first range of printed interiors fabric for Hedgeroe Home. There’s one pattern — Salt Marsh — in subtle colourways: dusty rose pink, salty blue, sage, oatmeal and chocolate brown. The pattern is modern, an abstract based on ariel photographs of salt marshes, but strangely adaptive.
“We’ve used it in traditional period houses, but it works equally well in modern interiors,” says Roe, who has just finished designing an Edwardian seaside home in Cornwall. “We used the blue salt marsh fabric in bedroom curtains, a kitchen blind and the back of the barstools.”
The subtle nostalgia factor comes from the material, rather than the pattern, of the fabric which is made in Irish linen. While the flax plant is no longer grown commercially on this island, a handful of linen mills are still in production. Most are north of the border, the last survivors of the region’s once-thriving heritage industry. “We spent a long time creating the base fabric,” says Roe. “We wanted texture as well as weight to give it a lovely draping quality and pure linen tends to crumple, so we added a little bit of cotton to the mix.”
Salt Marsh is milled, woven and printed in Ireland. That doesn’t come cheap and the fabric costs €98 per metre. “Most people start off with a cushion. It’s a way of introducing a little bit of the pattern to test it.” Cushions in Salt Marsh at Hedgeroe Home start at €130 each.
Objects that are carelessly designed to look old can seem imitative and fake, to the extent that the word ‘nostalgic’ is often used as an insult. You’re usually better off with a genuine vintage item than a poorly conceived repro.
Where nostalgia really works in design, it’s usually combined with novelty. Sarah O’Dea of Shady and the Lamp designs makes lampshades in her Dublin studio.
The process could not be more traditional: each lampshade is stretched and stitched by hand to its own individual frame. Because of the cost of materials and making, it’s an expensive product (her new Colour Pop Tiffany collection starts at €250 for a table lampshade and goes up to €475 for a 53cm diameter pendant).
The designs are a zingy blend of novelty and retro, Their forms echo Tiffany glass lampshades, but are made in silk with rich fringes and matching or contrasting trim, yet the colourways are pure bananas: aqua blue silk with raspberry fringing or sunset silk with a sky-blue trim.
The ensembles are like Ottolenghi recipes, with familiar ingredients combined in an unexpected way. The shapes and the fringing are nostalgic. Even the notion of a handmade silk lampshade is nostalgic, but the colours are absolutely current.
See dfs.ie, cathkidston.com, shadyandthelamp.ie and hedgeroe.com. See also Nostalgia And Its Value To Design Strategy (2011) by Haian Xue and Pedro Carvalho de Almeida.